Novel Writing 101 – 6. The Three Act Structure

In the last post, we looked at the fifth part of my Novel Writing 101 series titled: Novel Writing 101 – 5. Character Arc This week we’ll look at how to properly structure a novel to ensure flowability. There are three acts to any novel, and they help to bring the plot and the story to a climatic point where the protagonists finally overcomes their flaw and defeats the antagonist who does not overcome their flaw.


What is the Three Act Structure

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A good way to make sure your novel doesn’t meander or fall into a dip is ensure it fits nicely into what’s known as the The Three Act Structure. Many writers are a little afraid of the Thee Act Structure because they think it takes the fun out of the novel creation. Subconsciously some writers think their novel will fall into a cookie cutter style and loose its charm, but I can assure you now, the structure is there and has always been there for a good reason. Because it works.

Basically the structure is designed in three parts, or simply put: The Beginning, Middle and End. But there’s far more to it than that, with each Act having its own elements that drive the novel forward and ensure it remains entertaining.

Act 1 – Hook, Backstory and Spark

Act 1 is all about the introduction of both the Protagonist and the Status Quo, the Status Quo being the current state of affairs, environment and other characters related to your protagonist. Its the perfect time to set up the story and get that plot of yours ready and raring for action. Here are the three main elements of Act 1 in more detail:

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Hook: It’s time to start your novel with a few important things. Firstly start with your Protagonist if you can. Get your readers to identify as soon as possible. Also start with an interesting event that gets your readers asking lots of questions. Who is this person in the scene? Why do they have a pineapple on their head? It’s also a good idea to begin the first scene as late in as possible. There’s no need for any unnecessary exposition. Start with some action and get going.

Backstory: It’s time to do a bit of explaining. Here’s a good chance to really introduce your protagonist. Who they are, what they do, why they are where they are. This can be explained either with the character introducing themselves to another character, a character recalling it in memories or even conveying it with some exposition. This is also the best time to elaborate on your protagonist’s Goal, their Flaw and their situation. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly suggest reading Part 2 of this 101: Novel Writing 101 – 2. A Great Protagonist, so you can get a good grasp of the Protagonist’s Goal and Flaw.

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Spark: As you move further into Act 1 of your novel, you’ll want something big to happen, known as the spark, which will ignite your Protagonist’s journey. It’s the sort of major event that propels your protagonist into a Dilemma, which we’ll get onto in a moment. It can also be seen as the Point of No Return for your protagonist. After this event, they can’t go back to their regular way of living (Status Quo)

The Spark is something that happens TO your protagonist, and is rarely a protagonist’s choice. As it’s a point of no return, an example of this can be where the Protagonist sets out for work one morning, only to be hit by a car and put into a wheelchair. The Spark is the car hitting them. It wasn’t the Protagonist’s choice.

The Spark is also specifically an event that has a highly negative effect on your Protagonist’s Flaw. This is an emotional attack that makes your character question themselves because of this event. For example, if Danny’s Flaw was rudeness, the Spark might be him being fired from work for being derogatory to a colleague. Or in the example above, the person being hit by a car may have the Flaw of being a obsessed with their image, only for their face to be disfigured. Yes it’s physically damaging and nobody wants that to happen to them, but emotionally it’s something that affects their Flaw specifically.

Act 2 – Dilemma, Journey and Realisation

Act 2, or the middle as it’s most commonly known as, is the part of your novel that can sometimes be the hardest, since it’s usually the longest Act and the Act with the most journey, plot and story progression. But following the steps below, Act 2 can be planned much more easily and save you the headache later on.

Dilemma: Following on from the Spark in Act 1, the Dilemma should begin with an internal thought process from your Protagonist as they contemplate how the Spark has  and will affect them, and also how it affects their Flaw. Remember though, your Protagonists isn’t aware of what their Flaw is just yet, but they must still act in a way that proves their Flaw exists.

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Journey: This is by far the longest part of Act 2, and is the main reason Act 2 is the longest section of your novel. The Journey is full of obstacles that not only get in the way of your Protagonist’s Goal but also attack your Protagonist’s Flaw and Damaging Belief. The journey is all about doing two things: 1. Advancing the plot forward, and 2. attacking your Protagonist’s Flaw and sensibilities until they cave in and have their Realisation.

With the plot, you want your Villain / Antagonist to be the one creating complexity and obstacles for your protagonist. For example, Mary might want to race to the finish line, but Betty has punctured her tires, thrown debris on the race track, spiked Mary’s fuel tank…you get the picture.

You also want events and scenes to get ever more complex, with information about what’s going on being discovered from this place and that, having obstacles thrown in your Protagonist’s way in order to prove a challenge, introduce different characters who hold a missing piece of a puzzle, have your characters race a clock to find a killer before someone is murdered. Whatever happens in your novel, it’s time to put it into the journey.

The other element of the Journey is how your Protagonist’s reacts to the plot, and how the plot attacks that Flaw we talked about. Every obstacle they face has to lead to a Protagonist’s reaction. As long as their is a reaction, and as long as it makes sense in regards to their Flaw, then your readers will enjoy the Journey much more.

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Realisation: So after the long struggling Journey your Protagonist must go through, it’s time for them to have a realisation, or an epiphany as it’s sometimes called. The Realisation happens basically when your Protagonist either can’t take much more of their Flaw being bashed around, or when they’ve gathered enough information about the Plot to realise how they have to change as a person in order to reach their Goal.

The Realisation is when  your Protagonist FINALLY discovers what their Flaw is. Remember how I said in the Dilemma that the Protagonist isn’t supposed to know what their Flaw is yet? Well now’s the time for them to Realise it! So in our example above, if Mary keeps being sabotaged in the Race by Betty, and Mary’s Flaw just so happens to be a “Pushover”, Mary must now REALISE that she has to grow a backbone and fight just as dirty in order to win the race.

This is also the part of the novel where your Protagonist has finally completed their Character Arc. For more information on Character Arc, have a read of Part 5 of this 101.

Act 3 – Plan, Climax and Denouement

Now your Protagonist has had their Realisation, a few things can now happen. Firstly this is pretty much the end of your Protagonist’s emotional story. What happened from here on out is predominantly Plot and action focussed. There’s little room here for deep inner monologues or contemplations. Act 3 and the ending of your novel can now go out with a bang.

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Plan: After the Protagonist’s Realisation, they can now develop a Plan in order to both overcome the Antagonist and finally reach that Goal they’ve been striving for this whole time. It’s also worth noting that the Plan is something the Protagonist NEVER could have done at the start of your novel or before their Realisation.

Another cool point to make is that your Protagonist can make one plan, have it fail, and then introduce another plan before the Climax. This is a great way at building tension, but more on tension later. For example: If Mary’s Plan is to smash her race car into Betty’s race car in order to run Betty off the road, the first failed plan could be that she misses and runs into a ditch, only for Mary’s second plan to be to jump out of her own car, kick Betty out of her’s and then race Betty’s car to the finish line!! Crazy, but exciting.

Climax: It’s time for your Protagonist to finally confront your Antagonist. This is usually very plot and action focussed. Whilst your Antagonist is overcome by the planned efforts of your Protagonist, it’s very important to note that the Antagonist is also defeated by their own Flaw. We spoke heavily about the Villain / Antagonist here in Part 4 and how they as a character are unable to overcome their Flaw, which along with the efforts of the Protagonist leads to the Antagonist’s downfall.

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For example, Betty the bad driver from above, was not only stopped by the now confident Mary, but Betty also lost the race because her Flaw was cockiness and believed she was better than everyone else, and through her cockiness she was unable to realise she was no longer the better driver and thus was defeated.

Word of warning! Do not let the cavalry save the day. If your main character is in a predicament during the climax, then it’s your main character’s responsibility to get themselves out of it. This is of course debatable. Let’s say your protagonist has literally exhausted everything they’ve got. Help can sometimes come along, but it should only do just that, help. But it’s still your protagonist’s duty to overcome the antagonist.

Denouement: So your Protagonist has come a very long way. Congratulations. They overcome their internal struggling Flaw, they’ve overcome the villain, they’ve succeed in meeting their Goal, so now what? Now it’s time to wrap things up and tie up those loose ends. The Denouement is also about leaving the reader with everything they need to know, not necessarily everything you want them to know. There’s no point adding too much information to this section or you’ll run the risk of boring your reader.

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You’ve got to allow the reader a chance to want a little more. Don’t leave any loose ends as such, just make room for a little “Oh I wonder what will happen now they’ve succeeded. For example: Let’s say your main character has journeyed long and hard to find an untouched Lost Land. Let’s say they find it, and they walk through the grass, look at the mountains and say “we made it.” Now as a reader you want to know more. Will they build a new civilisation in this Lost Land? Will the protagonist start a relationship with their companion? Maybe. But DON’T show all that happening. Let the reader WANT you to show it.

During the Denouement it’s also a great opportunity to revisit your novel’s Theme. I spoke in brief detail about Theme in the first part of this 101 and how it’s the overall message you want to convey to your readers. Don’t be preachy here though, just hint at the Theme you wanted your readers to come away with.

Conclusion and Check list

As you can see, the Three Act Structure is a pretty in depth and heavy process for planning your novel. It takes Begging, middle and End to a whole new level. If you follow each element and put it towards your won ideas, you start to see that that “Cookie Cutter” doesn’t apply so much.

To summarise:

  1. Hook your readers in with a few questions
  2. Use backstory to introduce your Protagonist
  3. Spark your Protagonist’s Journey with an event that happens to them
  4. Show your Protagonist dealing with an emotional Dilemma after the Event
  5. Have your Antagonist make up the bulk of the obstacles for your Protagonist
  6. Have your Protagonist deal with their emotional Flaw during their Journey
  7. Give your Protagonist a Realisation in order to over come their Flaw and complete their Character Arc
  8. Have your Protagonist devise a Plan to overcome the Villain
  9. Your Antagonist is overcome by their own Flaw and the Protagonist’s efforts
  10. All the loose ends are tied up and the reader is left wanting more.

That concludes Part 6 of my Novel Writing 101. You can read Part 5 here: Novel Writing 101 – 5. Character Arc. I’ll try and get something like this done often to give you all a better understanding of how I write my own novels.

If you have any questions or want to discuss the ideas above, either drop me a message, or leave a comment below so we can chat about it! Other than that, what things do you do to get your creative juices flowing? What do you think creates a good pace and structure for a novel? Do you like working with a structure like this or do you prefer to let the story develop naturally? Let us know in the comments!

Next time, I’ll discuss Scene Structure

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